DECEMBER 2, 2016 – A human science major at the School of Nursing & Health Studies was among the finalists this year for the prestigious Rhodes scholarship.
Although Benjamin Johnson (NHS’17) was not among the 32 men and women ultimately selected in November to represent the U.S., the senior from Washington state made it to the last phase of the highly competitive process, which included interviews of 230 applicants out of the close to 900 who were initially endorsed by their institutions.
Johnson, who plans to attend medical school next year, had hoped to use the scholarship to tie together his interests in neuroscience and global health, specifically to research how isolation and mental health connect with physical health.
“I have come to believe that mental health is one of the most pressing health challenges of the 21st century,” Johnson says. “While we steadily continue the march towards improvements in vaccines and control of chronic illnesses, mental illness remains largely unrecognized and untreated, sapping billions from our global economy and creating a hidden, stigmatized web of disease that is invisible, yet affects one in four people.”
He believes there is an unequal distribution of resources and isolation from technology and medical infrastructure. “The sense that isolation is responsible for disease and poor health has hit me again and again,” he says.
The Georgetown senior currently works as an emergency medical technician and crew chief for the Georgetown Emergency Medical Response Service (GERMS).
“Working on an ambulance, as I have since my first year in college, is all about rushing injured people to the hospital – reducing the physical and temporal isolation between them and definitive health care,” says Johnson, who also lived for a summer in Borneo working as a medical first responder.
Last year, Johnson directed campus-wide mental health advocacy as the undersecretary of mental health for the Georgetown University Student Association. He also served as chair of Georgetown’s Mental Health Committee in that role and organized projects.
“My time in student government in the context of mental health on campus gave rise to Project Lighthouse, which has been the culmination of my advocacy efforts on campus,” he says. “It is a student group that I founded, which provides free, confidential, online mental health support to students through instant messaging, available from 7 p.m. - 1 a.m. daily.”
Joan Burggraf Riley, MS, MSN, RN, FNP-BC, FAAN, associate professor of human science and assistant dean for educational innovation, served as Johnson’s faculty advisor for the Rhodes scholarship and is also his honors thesis advisor for his project on student peer-to-peer support in mental health care on campus.
“To describe Ben as an outstanding student and individual does not do justice to his academic initiative, inquisitiveness, stellar character, and warm personality,” says Riley, who also taught Johnson in the course “Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.”
In that course, Johnson researched the impact on peer support workers who provided anonymous mental health online chat services.
“Rarely in my 35 years at Georgetown have I encountered such a values-driven and humble student with Ben’s academic talents,” says Riley. “His quest for knowledge and passion to improve the lives of others defines Ben.”